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The Art of the Dealer: 'From Cezanne to Picasso'

You expect a great institution like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to put on an exhibition of masterpieces. And the Met's current offering -- Cezanne to Picasso -- is just such a show. It has works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and others.

But the focus of the exhibition is not so much on masterpieces as it is on Ambroise Vollard, the Frenchman who first spotted these artists and sold their works, which became part of every important collection of modern art all over the world.

Vollard was not the first dealer in modern art. But starting in the 1890s, he was one of the first to recognize certain unknown young artists, and then help make them famous. And Vollard was certainly the most interesting -- even difficult -- art dealer of his day.

"He would never sell anybody what they wanted; he would never show people what they wanted," says Gary Tinterow, curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum. "If they came in to see a Cezanne, he would bring out a Gauguin. If they wanted a still life, he would say, 'Well, here's a landscape.'"

Not only was Vollard difficult; very often he was wrong. In 1895, a few years after Van Gogh died -- unknown and unlauded -- Vollard presented the first Van Gogh solo show. Even though there weren't many sales, Vollard bought 60 to 80 Van Gogh canvases to sell. Vollard later wished he'd bought more.

"I was totally wrong about Van Gogh," Vollard wrote in his memoir. "I thought he had no future at all. And I let his paintings go for practically nothing."

The son of a notary, Vollard had been sent to Paris from a small French colony in the Indian Ocean to study law. But he found more fun and profit buying art prints for next to nothing from street vendors on the Seine, and selling them for twice what he paid.

Vollard made his mark as a dealer in 1895, with his Cezanne show. The painter was living in obscurity in the south of France and his work hadn't been exhibited in 20 years. The dealer learned about him from some painter pals.

Once he tracked the artist down in Provence, Vollard bought 150 canvases. He had them sent to Paris, and put them up in his gallery.

"It was a revelation to collectors, to artists, and instantly his work began to influence the next generation of artists," curator Rebecca Rabinow says. "It had an immense impact."

Matisse scraped together every cent he had to buy a Cezanne from Vollard. (Later, Vollard gave Matisse his first solo show.) And the young Picasso was mesmerized by Cezanne.

"And if you think about all the people who passed through Vollard's gallery, all the artists who became influenced by Cezanne," Rabinow says. "Had Vollard not tracked him down in the south of France, would cubism even exist? Because Picasso always says that his example was Cezanne, and it was at Vollard's gallery that he saw Cezanne's work."

The exhibit, Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, continues at the Metropolitan Museum through Jan. 7, 2007. It is later scheduled to travel to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.